Luminaries and Surprises

‘American Drawings and Watercolors’ at the Princeton University Art Museum is a veritable roll call of American artists.

By: Pat Summers

"Snow Squall" by Charles Herbert Moore

   Too often in art museums, it’s the big, colorful things that grab attention. Visitors seem to gravitate to splashy paintings and bulky sculptures, not noticing or allowing time to attend to smaller, quieter works — which can be lovely, surprising and rewarding.
   Seventy-seven such low-key treasures are on view in a richly varied exhibition, West to Wesselmann: American Drawings and Watercolors in the Princeton University Art Museum. It runs through Jan. 9, 2005.

"Newfields, New Hampshirel" by Childe Hassam on the cover of the exhibition catalog.

   In just three rooms, the sweep of American art history unfolds through drawings and watercolors, beginning with this country’s "first old master," Benjamin West (1738-1820), and ending, at least alphabetically, with Pop Art exponent Tom Wesselmann (b. 1931). Drawn from more than 2,000 pieces in the collection, the exhibition was organized by John Wilmerding, the Christopher B. Sarofim ’86 Professor of American Art at Princeton University, and Laura M. Giles, curator of prints and drawings at the museum.
   Displayed in loosely chronological sequence, works in the exhibition amount to a veritable roll call of American artists, schools, styles and subjects. Among individuals and movements represented are early American luminaries like John Singleton Copley; relative unknowns, such as Sarah Hoding; the Hudson River, Ash Can and New York schools; Winslow

"Universalist Church" by Edward Hopper.

Homer and Thomas Eakins; Gilded Age artists Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent; the Stieglitz circle; Charles Burchfield, Ben Shahn and other realists; post-World War II artists, including Jackson Pollock and Claes Oldenburg; and Alex Katz, among other contemporary artists.
   This in-person visual feast is not all. The exhibition celebrates publication by the art museum of an accompanying 385-page fully illustrated catalog. It is projected to be the first of three, with succeeding volumes dealing with American painting and sculpture in the collection.

"Sacco and Vanzetti: In the Courtroom Cage" by Ben Shahng.

   Some artists in this show also are represented in the museum by work in other mediums — oils, for instance, or sculpture. As a result, visitors can see artists they may already know employing a drawing or watercolor medium. It’s like bumping into your high school English teacher at the movies.
   Among its many values, according to Dr. Wilmerding, this exhibition traces the evolution of drawing, beginning with a kind of "preparatory, sketchy note-taking" — witness the many images titled by "Study for (a work later produced in another medium)." Over time, though, drawn images "clearly meant to be finished works of art," signal that "the act of drawing was thought to be of equal stature to the act of painting."

"Eastern Point Light" by Winslow Homer.

   As evident in the exhibition, watercolor as a medium came into its own in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. While groups dedicated to drawing were formed, watercolor societies also sprang up, attesting to its serious practice. What Dr. Wilmerding describes as "the American mentality of wanting to document national sites" was fostered by use of "fresh and on the spot" watercolor.
   Seth Eastman (1808-1875), for instance, produced a "quietly objective" watercolor rendering of "Mississippi River, near Fort Snelling, Minnesota," then the country’s Western frontier. This appealing image marks a departure from the American Indian portraits for which he was better known.

"Near the Inlet, Atlantic City" by William Trost Richards.

   Some time later, roughly concurrent with significant watercolors by Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, also on view, painters like William Trost Richards (1833-1905) and Charles Herbert Moore (1840-1930) used the medium for scenes of local and enduring interest. Richards’ "Near the Inlet, Atlantic City" could have been painted before a storm last summer, while Moore’s "Snow Squall," with its sky of pink, peach and mauve and blue-shadowed snow, might be only weeks away.

"Study #2 for ‘Famous Firsts’" by Stuart Davis.

   Evidencing what Dr. Wilmerding describes as "a Whistlerian fascination with Venice," and happily influenced by J. M. W. Turner, is an ethereally lovely scene by Thomas Moran (1837-1926). "Venice: The Lagoon Looking toward Santa Maria della Salute" juxtaposes luminous water and gleaming white buildings with vivid sails. Whistlerian fascinations can be very good things.
   One exhibition coup: the sketchbook of Thomas Cole, early Hudson River school artist, with drawings from between 1839-1844. Like much in the show, this was acquired by Frank Jewett Mather Jr., the museum’s first director. Through him, Princeton’s collection of American drawings and watercolors was established in the 1930s.
   Installation of this exhibition includes a number of thoughtful details. For instance, wall colors move from soft pales to white for the 20th century, known for its white-box galleries. One painting (Thomas Eakins’ "Seventy Years Ago") was significantly restored, removing mold that over time had fuzzed up a chair leg. Unmatted, John LaFarge’s "Study of Afterglow from Nature (Tahiti: Entrance to Tautira Valley)" revealed an artist’s inscription at the right-margin. Reframed, the note was left showing.

"Young Woman in a Black and Green Bonnet, Looking Down" by Mary Cassatt.

   Two velvety pastels, hung back to back on a divider panel, showcase artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. "Young Woman in a Black and Green Bonnet, Looking Down" by Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) has been framed as it would have been exhibited in her own time. "Narcissa’s Last Orchid," with symmetrical white petals on a pink and brown ground, exemplifies the striking floral close-ups for which Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was known — and which sparked disputes about their sexual suggestiveness.
   A contribution to scholarship has been made because of the careful examination this pastel received during show preparation. The uncovered back revealed a different creation date than assigned until now, so future records will show 1940 instead of 1941. Too delicate to travel, this work will not accompany the exhibition to its next two destinations — Giverny, France, and Atlanta, Ga.
   Also of local interest is the 1911 pastel "Studies for Mural in Council Chamber, Trenton City Hall" by Woodstown artist Everett Shinn (1876-1953). Concerned with perspective and foreshortening, musculature and lighting, Shinn drew four brawny partial figures and an arm, all glowing in firelight. He had spent six months visiting area factories to watch laborers at work.
   A easily identified Edward Hopper (1882-1979) image of a church and an easily mis-attributed gestural piece in brush and black ink by sculptor David Smith (1906-1965) are among works on view from the 20th century. His jazzy "Study #2 for ‘Famous Firsts’" in black, white, red and blue by Stuart Davis (1892-1964) is about midway along the long-title continuum, with just a few artists at the short ("Untitled") end. With his dark brown-pencil drawing, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) is one of those, along with Smith.
   Nor did Lee Bontecou (b. 1931), recently re-discovered after brief celebrity during the Abstract Expressionist period, title her abstract work of soot and graphite with areas of erasure and resist. A second, much larger work of hers is en route back to Princeton from its loan to her recent retrospective at New York’s MoMA.
   Charles White (1918-1979) is represented in the exhibition by his image of Princeton-born Paul Robeson. Dramatically executed in carbon pencil over charcoal, it virtually resonates from the wall where it hangs.
   Pop artist Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929) has one piece, the whimsical "B Tree (for Alfred Barr)," in the catalog, and two on the wall. "Flying Blueberry Pie à la Mode" became available for purchase in time to join the exhibition. It’s delicious — and like the rest of this show, should be savored.
West to Wesselmann is on view at the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University campus, through Jan. 9, 2005. Museum hours: Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 1-5 p.m. For information, call (609) 258-3788. On the Web: